A.C. Fairbanks

1880 – 1890 Fairbanks and Cole

Albert Conant Fairbanks was born in 1852 in Sterling, Massachusetts. He was a banjo player with a desire to build his own instruments. In 1875 he started by building simple inexpensive 5-string banjos and within 5 years he was living in Chelsea, Suffolk, Massachusetts with wife Emma and son Curtis and had established himself as a credible luthier.

William A. Cole was born in Vermont in 1854. He and his brother Frank Cole became interested in music and teaching. The banjo was their instrument of choice. At some point William met Albert Fairbanks and discovered their common interests. In 1880 they joined forces to form the Fairbanks and Cole Company. The object of the exercise was to build banjos and their partnership would last 10 years.

The public demand for banjos existed they were small and portable, loud and suitable for all sorts of musical styles. The volume was important as there were no amplifiers. If a stringed instrument was to accompany brass instruments, it had to be loud. The scores from the period range from bawdy dance hall rhythmic drives to classical musical presentations.

Manufacturing techniques had allowed more automation due to the early versions of assembly line construction. Metal parts could be subcontracted or mass produced in-house. Labor was inexpensive and readily available. Distribution of goods was easy by rail, so markets were no longer local, they were nationwide. Anything was possible. The level of craftsmanship was exceptional. The enthusiasms of the time allowed that no degree of ornamentation was too much – the more the better.

The better models produced included:

  • The Clipper (later dropped as ‘too expensive’)
  • The Expert
  • The Imperial

The more economical grades included:

  • The Class A (in 9 grades of finish)
  • The Acme
  • The Champion
  • The Standard

David L. Day was born in 1865 in New Hampshire. By 1880 he was living with his family in Boston. In 1883, at age 18, David joined Fairbanks and Cole as an office boy. He was clearly talented and strongly motivated as he quickly rose to General Manager. David L. Day, over time, brought many of the significant innovations that helped define the modern banjo. He was certainly an important factor in the success of Fairbanks and Cole.

Fairbanks had some form of disagreement with Cole in 1890 that led to Cole’s departure from the company. The firm was renamed A.C. Fairbanks and Company and David Day stayed on as General Manager.

1890 – 1896    A.C. Fairbanks and Company

During the period of 1890 to 1895, the Electric tone ring was designed and patented.

The available models of the day were:

  • The Electric
  • The Curtis Electric (named for Fairbanks son)
  • The Imperial Electric
  • The Columbian
  • The Senator
  • The Special
  • The Regent

Electricity was the wonder of the age. It would be 30 years before a viable amplifier would be produced for musical instruments, but the notion of “Electric” was a metaphor for the bright and exciting future.

1896 – 1904 A.C. Fairbanks and Company – David Cummings and Frank Lodge

In 1896, at age 42, Fairbanks sold his interests in the company to David Cummings and Frank Lodge. David L. Day stayed on as General Manager and the instruments continued to bear the respected Fairbanks name. Fairbanks went on to start the Fairbanks Wood Rim Company, 5 Appleton Street, a bicycle company. He used his extensive knowledge of wood rims from banjos. The new firm saw success and soon had manufacturing in the US and in Europe. He followed this muse until profitably selling his interest in the bicycle company in 1906.

1901 saw the introduction of the Whyte-Laydie. Though it shared some earlier parts like the Electric’s tone ring, it was the banjo for the new century. The wood was natural maple. The norm for all banjos was a dark stain on the wooden rim. This light blond was new and gave the instrument its name. It was available as a No. 2 or a No. 7 with mild or intense ornamentation.

In 1904 the A.C. Fairbanks and Company building caught fire and burned to the ground. Fire in woodworking shops of the day was common. There were no electric fan driven sawdust extraction systems and the potential for fire was constant. The company was not properly insured and was financially devastated. With no other options, A.C. Fairbanks Company accepted an offer to be purchased for $925 by the Vega Company plus $1 for the rights to 4 patents.

Albert Fairbanks had built a company that focused on the art and craft of the instruments. He knew that the strength and destiny of the company was based on the abilities and skills of the employees. Following the fire, he demonstrated his priorities by working out an agreement that basically called for the continued use of the Fairbanks name for 20 years or so on the banjos issued that were based upon his designs. The core of his final agreement with Vega, however, acknowledged the strength of his original collective by acommodating the security of his employees. The agreement was made with the understanding that Vega would retain the original employees. In the end, Albert Fairbanks protected his interests by protecting the lives and employment of the artisans which created his success in the first place.

In 1906 A.C. Fairbanks (the man) went on to work for the Waterproof Paint Co, Watertown, MA for 13 years until he died at age 67 on October 10th, 1919. His last few years were spent as president of the paint company.

1904 – 1919 A.C. Fairbanks and Vega

Vega understood the value of the A.C. Fairbanks name. Vega sold banjos under both the Vega and Fairbanks brands. In 1908 the Whyte-Laydie was re-designed again by David L. Day with a scalloped tone ring and in 1909, the equally famous Vega Tub-a-phone tone ring and banjo was introduced. It was available as a 5-string or plectrum; No.3 or No.9, with mild or intense ornamentation. By 1910, Vega was marketing banjos as ‘Fairbanks Banjo, made by the Vega Company, Boston Mass.’

Shortly after Albert Conant Fairbanks death in 1919, his name was dropped from the Vega labels. Banjos were simply identified: ‘The Vega Company’.

From 1913 onward, Vega used style designations instead of model names:

Brass rod tone ring:

  • 5 String
  • Tenor
  • Mandolin Banjo

Little Wonder tone ring

  • Tenor

Whyte-Laydie tone ring

  • Banjorine
  • Mandolin Banjo
  • Tenor

Tu-ba-phone tone ring

  • Banjorine
  • Tenor
  • Mandolin Banjo

American musical tastes were rapidly changing with the constant influx of new cultural influences. The Tango craze hit between 1910 and 1914. The result was a demand for tenor rhythm instruments. Vega/Fairbanks rose to the occasion and provided tenors that were 16 or 17 fret, short scale open back versions of the 5-string models. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) was a world’s fair held in San Francisco, California between February 20 and December 4 in 1915 to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. The Exposition introduced America to Hawaiian music and the resulting demand for acoustic guitars and ukuleles was felt for years to come.

David L. Day left the Vega Company in 1922 to work for the Bacon Banjo Co. which ultimately became Bacon & Day.  Day was the last of the original A.C. Fairbanks designers.

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ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth